IN 2018, a local newsroom reported on allegations of misconduct against the Salem police department. This investigative reporting triggered a momentous chain of events. The town manager was empowered to investigate the department and how it handled internal investigations, resulting in a damning audit of the department’s internal record-keeping procedures, among a litany of other concerning issues. Before long, Salem’s police chief was forced to resign amid a storm of controversy regarding the department’s operations.
It’s easy to imagine this story playing out differently, with a few frustrated citizens finding their complaints falling on deaf ears and resigning themselves to inaction. Only the dedicated efforts of Ryan Lessard and his colleagues at the New Hampshire Union Leader brought the details to the attention of local readers. Without local reporting, this story might never have come to light.
The local news industry, however, is in trouble. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, advertising revenue has dried up with businesses shuttering to combat the virus. This has led to layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts for thousands of journalists. As essential workers, journalists are a critical resource for providing the people of New Hampshire with local reporting on what’s happening in their communities. This includes life-saving public health information about the impact of COVID-19 in their areas, particularly as the pandemic’s course takes new directions every day. Many news organizations are even making their online COVID-19 coverage free for all readers as a public service, despite the financial strains they face.
What’s more, those journalists who are still working are heading to areas where the risk of exposure to COVID-19 is higher. Others have become targets for violence from police — in violation of the First Amendment — while covering protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
COVID-19 has ravaged the local news industry, but many news organizations were beset by challenges well before the pandemic. The shift in ad revenue away from print and digital outlets toward tech giants like Google and Facebook has been financially ruinous. A bevy of mergers and acquisitions by private equity and hedge funds on Wall Street have added to the industry’s woes. These new owners have shown utter disregard for the journalists who help tell important community stories and the health of the local news sector, often pushing it further into decline.
Across the nation, communities have been forced to watch as their options for local news wither away due to economic pressure and consolidation, creating massive news deserts. Since 2004, the U.S. has lost approximately 2,100 newspapers — a staggering figure — with many of these being small, local papers outside of major cities. In New Hampshire alone, we’ve seen nine closures or mergers, including the Peterborough Transcript and the Salem Observer.
COVID-19 has intensified all of these challenges, and has the makings of an extinction-level event for local news. This presages a dark future, considering that local news plays such an important role in our communities. In an era permeated by fear, misinformation, and declining trust, local news outlets remain among the media organizations that Americans trust most. Their reporting helps hold governments accountable and increases civic engagement while reducing partisanship. When these news sources (and their role as watchdogs) disappear, the result is an increased risk of political corruption, and governments get more careless with borrowing and spending.
Make no mistake—access to local news in New Hampshire is in jeopardy. But it’s not too late to take action and reverse this trend. Congressional leaders in Washington have a bipartisan solution to keep local news afloat. In May, a group of senators introduced Senate Bill 3718, which would expand access to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) to local news outlets that have previously been blocked from accessing the PPP, because they’re owned by large chains.
This would be a critical lifeline for publications like The Portsmouth Herald. It’s time for Senators Shaheen and Hassan to join this growing coalition and make sure that the people of New Hampshire remain well-informed during and after this crisis.
If we allow the news industry to sink any further, journalists in New Hampshire who serve their communities will lose their jobs and they won’t be replaced by national news. Just as importantly, readers will be deprived of the role local news plays in connecting communities together: through high school sports, local political issues and governance, events and business news. We’re already struggling with a once-in-a-lifetime crisis. We can’t afford to make it worse by losing local news.